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Dalvin Cook and the Market for Running Backs

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Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Dalvin Cook says he’s the best back in the league, and presumably wants to be paid like it. Or at least “reasonably” close.

Cautionary Tales

But the league is changing in how it values the running back position, in part because of how (relatively) easy it seems to be able to find a quality back at any point in the draft, and also because second contracts for top running backs have proven to be anything but a bargain for the teams that made the deals. Todd Gurley, Le’veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and David Johnson are all cautionary tales. Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey may prove to be also.

Even Jerick McKinnon signed a 4-year, $30 million deal ($18 million guaranteed) with the 49ers and never played a snap in that contract. His restructured contract is now worth $1 million this year.

At the same time, Melvin Gordon pushing for a big contract extension, and not getting it with the Chargers, shows the beginning of the resistance to 8-figure running back salaries. Gordon still got a 2-year deal at $8 million per with the Broncos, but he was pushing for much more.

Talent or Environment ?

The trouble for backs looking for big money these days is that more and more GMs are noticing guys like Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Marlon Mack and Alvin Kamara be productive picks from the later rounds. And with more teams taking a running-back-by-committee approach, how much do you pay a back that only has 15 rushes a game?

Add to that the injury history that accompanies the running back position, and there are plenty of reasons to avoid paying big money to a running back, no matter how good he is.

PFF recently did a piece on why you should never pay a running back big money, and the reason is a simple one: success at the running back position is more a product of their environment rather than the back itself. Someday they’ll come to largely the same conclusion about the quarterback position, but that’s another story.

But a running back’s success is often tied to how well the offensive line blocks for him - not surprisingly - and the back himself seldom provides much of a discernible premium beyond what his environment provides. I’m sure there are exceptions to that, but not nearly as many as there are running backs looking for big money. That also explains how seemingly randomly drafted backs - 3rd round, 7th round, UDFA, can step in and produce like a first or second rounder.

Value Above Replacement

All this translates into how much value does a big money back provide over his replacement value? For the Vikings, does paying Dalvin Cook $13 million a year provide that much more offensive production than if they didn’t and went with Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone instead?

PFF points out in an article describing Cook as a great back, but not worth big money, that Mattison has done about as well as Cook running the ball. You could include Mike Boone too, albeit on fewer carries. The main thing Cook does better is receiving YAC, but he also has more drops. Certainly Cook has had a lot of explosive touches on dump-off passes - effectively a long pitch really - which help get him in space where he is most effective.

But how much is that worth? And can another back replicate that production too if given the chance?

These are valid considerations which, combined with Cook’s injury history and future role in a RB-by-committee, call into question the value added by paying him a lot more in a contract extension.

Not A Wise Big-Money Investment for the Vikings

I wrote in a comment last week the Vikings should consider an incentive-laden contract with a base of $9 million and active-roster and other bonuses reaching $13 million overall, but after considering all of the above, that seems like way too much - even though it was probably the low end of what Cook wanted.

But with Cook’s injury history, he’s shown he’s not durable enough to be a bell-cow, and his reps need to be limited - necessitating a running-back-by-committee approach going forward. Paying $9-$13 million a year for that position is too much, particularly given there isn’t that much of a drop-off between Cook and Mattison and even Boone for that matter.

Cook’s market value, based on comparable recent contracts, is estimated at $12.3 million/year according to Spotrac. But two of the comparables are David Johnson and Le’veon Bell, which are cautionary tales of overpayment. The other two - McCaffrey and Elliott, don’t have the durability issues Cook has, and even so were not smart deals for either team. Elliott has been helped by having arguably the best offensive line in front of him, while McCaffrey’s deal was made by the Panthers, who are rebuilding and basically have nothing else on offense - kinda like the Vikings when they extended Adrian Peterson.

The Vikings also have a scheme that Gary Kubiak has used to produce some top backs over the years, despite humble beginnings. Terrell Davis was a 6th round pick. Arian Foster was a UDFA. Justin Forsett was a 7th rounder.

All this argues for a much smaller offer than the comparable contracts suggest.

So How Much is Reasonable?

Clearly Dalvin Cook has talent the Vikings would like to extend, despite his injury history and hoping for the best going forward. And Cook deserves more than the $1 million/year or so provided by his rookie contract.

But given all of the above, the upper limit on a contract extension for Cook has to be somewhere around the $6 million/year Austin Ekeler got with the Chargers. Ekeler averaged 4.8 yards/carry before his extension, and last season became a big receiving threat - 903 receiving yards. Cook would likely have more carries and fewer receptions, but overall production - yards from scrimmage - was similar for the two backs last season. And Ekeler had more yards per touch.

Rumor is the Vikings offered Cook around $8 million/year - the Melvin Gordon comparable - but even that seems a bit rich given Cook’s injury history relative to Gordon’s. Cook has missed 18 games the past three seasons (not including week 17 last season), Gordon missed only 8. $13.5 million of Gordon’s $18 million 2-year salary is guaranteed.

Perhaps providing fewer guarantees and perhaps a lower base salary with more incentives may be a way to bridge differences between the Ekeler and Gordon deals, which may be acceptable to both Cook and the Vikings.

Testing the Market or Taking the Deal

For Dalvin Cook, the new CBA makes a holdout counterproductive, so he’ll have to end the threat prior to training camp or lose a credited year, which would make him a restricted free agent next year, rather than an unrestricted one. Being a restricted free agent basically means he’ll be stuck with a $3 million deal unless another team gives the Vikings a 2nd round pick to acquire Cook at a higher price, which isn’t very likely.

Cook would also be subject to $50,000 fines every day of training camp he misses, meaning if he held out for all of training camp he’d owe the Vikings money for the season.

All that makes holding out very unattractive for Cook, and in all likelihood just a ploy to try to expedite a deal, despite not having the leverage.

What that really means for Cook is whether he takes a $6-8 million/year offer from the Vikings, or declines such an offer in favor of testing the market next year. Of course there are plenty of risks with the latter as well. First, Cook could get injured and go into free agency as damaged goods, which would limit his market value, particularly given his injury history. Secondly, if Covid-19 results in a revenue decline, that’s going to put teams in bargain hunting mode when it comes to free agency, and paying big money to a running back is going to be even less of a priority.

All that means Cook may reconsider whether $6-8 million/year is a respectful offer. The Vikings could provide a $5 million signing bonus and guarantee his 2021 salary to entice him to sign and get paid now on a 2-year extension, which would allow him to test the market again in a couple years when he’s still young if he feels the need, while substantially increasing his income now.

Given all the above circumstances, that may be the best deal both sides could eventually - before training camp begins - agree to. Looking at that deal from both sides - Cook and the Vikings - I don’t think I’d pass that deal up if I were Cook - given the risks involved in doing so and changing market conditions for running backs. For the Vikings that’s a reasonable offer considering both Cook’s production, injury history, role, and a smarter view of comparable contracts.


Do you think the Vikings should extend Dalvin Cook at $6-8 million/year on a two-year extension ?

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